As the battered Union right flank started to crumble at Gaines Mill around 5 p.m., Friday, June 27, 1862, Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum had poured in all his reserves …
… including the 2nd Brigade commanded by Col. Joseph J. Bartlett.
A brave man who rode his horse amidst the flying Confederate lead, Bartlett had just brought the 16th New York to the battle line near the McGehee Farm. Then the 96th Pennsylvania had failed to advance (Bartlett blamed line officers deterred by “the murderous fire across the plain”), so the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment of Col. Nathaniel Jackson must fill the gap.
Away the Maine boys went.
As “the whistling bullets chimed music to the soldier’s ear,” the 5th Maine lads stepped off with Jackson presenting a large target atop his horse, noticed 1st Lt. George Bicknell. He and his men of Co. K advanced firmly with “no short, timid step.”
From the saddle, Joe Bartlett watched while the Maine “regiment … changed its front in the most soldierly manner, and under the sweeping storm of iron and leaden hail sent up their battle-shout and rushed upon the enemy.” He rode alongside the advancing 5th Maine.
Nathaniel Jackson rode past and waved his two lines toward the enemy. In the brief silences between enemy volleys, Bicknell could hear the swish, swish, swish as Maine men marched through growing grass. Bullets thudded into a Maine lad here and there, but the lines kept “on—now quicker—quicker still,” Bicknell said, keeping pace with his company.
“No one seemed to breathe,” then the regiment charged, and “the brow of the hill was ours,” he exulted.
A bullet struck and wounded Jackson; Lt. Col. William S. Heath of Waterville took command as the 5th Maine boys opened fire on the Confederate troops, pulled back sufficiently far to regroup.
Bartlett summoned the 27th New York to form alongside the 5th Maine, and the 96th Pennsylvanians finally came up. Reinforced enemy brigades advanced toward the 2nd Brigade; amidst heavy firing, Heath noticed that the farm house and outbuildings (likely those comprising the McGehee Farm) had separated four companies — I, G, C, and H — from the other six companies.
Riding up to the four companies, Heath ordered them to “move … to the left and perfect the line.” Suddenly “shot directly through the brain,” Heath fell from his horse “without uttering a groan,” Bicknell said.
Comrades bore the dead Heath away. Left beneath a tree, the body was never recovered; Heath went into an unmarked grave, if buried at all.
With Maj. Edward S. Scamman of Portland sick in an army hospital, “here we were in a terrific fight, without a field-officer in command,” Bicknell realized. Surviving line officers rallied their companies and continued the battle; regimental command fell to Clark S. Edwards, the senior captain.
Each soldier fought “on his own responsibility,” according to Bicknell. “Comrade after comrade fell upon either side, yet there was no faltering.” Two Maine companies charged with bayonets to chase away Confederates gathering on the regiment’s left flank, and “still the battle raged, and still we held our position,” Bicknell said.
Fighting raged all along the Union lines, almost 2½ miles in length. Slocum’s three brigades were helping hold — just barely — the Union right flank as Confederate troops broke the Union right flank along Boatswain’s Creek.
Bartlett’s 2nd Brigade was still on the firing line. More Confederate troops hit the brigade; on its left flank, the 27th New York and 5th Maine “staggered back under the fearful fire,” and Bartlett scurried over to harangue his men.
Stabilizing their lines, they “nobly maintained the fight, without giving an inch of ground … until long after darkness showed the flash of every musket,” he said.
The 5th Maine boys continued fighting near the McGehee farm. More Confederate brigades deployed into line; “about sunset the fire came too hot,” admitted Bicknell, surprised that he remained intact.
“It was more than flesh and blood could resist, and backward the men began to fall,” he noticed.
Around 8:30 p.m., as his men pulled back with their ammunition almost expended, Bartlett noticed a regiment’s flag left behind by bullet-tossed color bearers. “Brave as a lion,” Bartlett “came dashing up amid a perfect shower of bullets,” Bicknell said.
“Boys, don’t leave your colors,” yelled Bartlett, believing the flag was the 5th Maine‘s. “About face!”
“Back the boys charged with a perfect yell, gained the colors, and held … the position” until told to pull back, Bicknell said.
The 2nd Brigade withdrew quickly across the Chickahominy River at Alexander’s Bridge; Bicknell figured he reached the right bank about 9 p.m. Hours later his men fell asleep at the campground they had left early Thursday morning.
“The loss in the whole army was terrible,” Bicknell said. The 5th Maine had lost 10 men killed and 69 men wounded, he noted. Another 16 men were missing.#
Temporarily transferred to command the 5th Maine Infantry due to its lack of staff officers, Lt. Col. Jacob Frick of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry reported a final total of seven officers and 59 “enlisted men” killed or wounded in the Maine unit. Although the regiment had “received a very galling fire from a greatly superior force,” the “officers and men behaved nobly,” he reported.
Bartlett reported “the loss of 500 officers and men” in his brigade; the 16th New York reported 201 casualties, the 27th New York lost 151 men, and the 96th Pennsylvania 87 men dead, wounded, or missing. Adding the 66 men lost in the 5th Maine, and Bartlett’s initial estimate of losses was very close; the 2nd Brigade officially reported 505 casualties.
Bartlett described all his warriors as “brave, energetic, and efficient.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.